Monday, June 09, 2008

Writing Style for Print vs. Web

Jakob Nielsen on how to write for the Web ...

"Linear vs. non-linear. Author-driven vs. reader-driven. Storytelling vs. ruthless pursuit of actionable content. Anecdotal examples vs. comprehensive data. Sentences vs. fragments.

I've spent many columns explicating the differences between the Web and television, which can be summarized as lean-forward vs. lean-back:

* On the Web, users are engaged and want to go places and get things done. The Web is an active medium.
* While watching TV, viewers want to be entertained. They are in relaxation mode and vegging out; they don't want to make choices. TV is a passive medium.

This doesn't mean that you can't have entertaining websites or informative TV shows. But it does mean that the two media's contrasting styles require different approaches to entertainment and education.

The differences between print and the Web may not seem as strong, but to achieve optimal results, each requires a distinct content style.
Example: Tall Travelers
I recently read an article in The New York Times about tall people's travails on the road: "Coping With the Tall Traveler's Curse." The headline itself is actually an example of the differences between print and online content style:

* In print, a phrase like "tall traveler's curse" is a bit enticing and might draw readers in. Because the article featured a photo of a tall guy crunched in the back of a taxi, the article's content was clear to anybody glancing at that page in the newspaper.
* In contrast, putting the same headline online would fail several guidelines for writing for the Web:
o The first 3 words have no information-carrying content. On the Web, you must start with words like "tall traveler" because users often scan down the left part of a list of items. They never see the last words in a link unless the first few words attract their attention.
o The headline lacks keywords — such as "airline seat" and "hotel bed" — that are important for search engine optimization (SEO). No one will search "curse" when trying to find out which hotel chains offer extra-long beds or which airline seats are the least unpleasant for long-legged travelers.
o The words "tall traveler's curse" are insufficiently specific to tell users what the story is about. Because headlines are often presented as plain links removed from the article itself, the photo of the poor guy in the cab won't be there to explain the story's content. Online, the headline alone must provide enough information scent to let users predict what they'll get if they follow the link.

Even though I'm not particularly tall myself, I read the entire article in the printed newspaper. Why? Because it was well written and contained several interesting anecdotes about tall business travelers, ending with the story of a tall woman executive having to bend down to use a hotel room makeup mirror.

I would never have read that same article on nytimes.com, because the story lacks both immediacy and utility. Even though the article surely attracted some pageviews online, it's style is not optimal for presenting information on the Web.

The Web rewards comprehensive coverage that's more specific than print content. On the Web, content for tall travelers should feature ratings of airline seats and hotel beds for all the major airlines and hotel chains, respectively. Even better would be to differentiate coverage for tall men vs. tall women and for somewhat tall vs. gigantically tall people.

This more detailed approach works online because the content is searchable and you can sort and present it in personalized views for each user. Say, for example, you're 6-foot-8 (2.03 m) like the guy in the article photo, and you're flying United Airlines from San Francisco to Chicago. A good site will tell you which departing plane has the best seat configuration for you, and which seat you should book."    (Continued via Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox)    [Usability Resources]

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